Wrapping up his discussion of the body, Paul ends chapter 12 saying, “But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way” (12.31). Here he seems to be saying, though the gifts are important and can build up the church, there is something even more important. In chapter 13, he elaborates on this idea and tells us the “still more excellent way” is love.
Before I had always read the Love Chapter—1 Cor. 13—like most. I skipped over the first two verses about tongues and prophecies, read verse 3 about giving stuff away, and then scrolled through the Love list. I rejoiced that “love never fails,” saw that the gifts cease when the perfect appears—which must mean the first coming and the church right? Or at least the Bible I hold in my hands?—I continued on by assuming that I could know fully now due to the Bible, and I ended with the superiority of Love. Haven’t most of us done this reading of the Love chapter or some variation of it?
When I slowed down and read it in context, though, I realized that chapter 13 is actually a continuation of chapter twelve. In it Paul is showing us the “more excellent way” that he promised at the end of chapter twelve. He is saying that you need to respect each other regardless of your gifts, you need to desire the higher gifts, but you don’t need to have that as your focus. He says this because, being human, many are going to claw and scrap after the higher gifts—desiring them to the point of failing to see the people that they serve with those gifts. To the point of failing to value the other parts of the body like they should. Paul is essentially saying, it’s great that you have these gifts and desire them, but if you don’t have love, THEY DON”T MATTER. No matter what part of the body you are, no matter what gift you have—high, lower, or in between—if you don’t love each other, “[You] are nothing” (13.2).
In this context, let’s look at the “Love list” (1 Cor. 13.4-7):
o “Love is patient and kind”—It is patient with Christians of different maturity levels (I Cor. 8: 7-13). It doesn’t insist that we all are the same maturity or spiritual level and all “get it.” It never says, “I don’t need you.”
o “Love does not envy or boast”—Even while desiring the higher gifts, it doesn’t envy those who already posses them or boast about the gifts, if you do have them.
o “It is not arrogant or rude”—It doesn’t say because I am an eye, I don’t need you (12.21). It cares for all parts of the body and works to the common good.
o “It does not insist on its own way”—Again, it looks for the way to use the gifts for the common good, not just to serve me. It “[does] not [seek] my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (I Cor. 10.33).
o “It is not irritable or resentful”—Even when things don’t go my way, I don’t pout. Even if the Spirit chooses not to give me the gifts I desire, I still work with what I have to the common good.
o “It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth”—I don’t rejoice when I get my way to the harm of others, or part of the body is hurt or neglected by another. I rejoice when truth prevails, even if it is one that challenges my thinking and my paradigm or checks my actions.
o “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”—Love would rather be hurt than “put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (I Cor. 9.12). Love would rather give someone a chance, than to assume what they are saying isn’t true. Love would rather hope and endure, so that “many can be saved,” than seek my way or an easy way out (I Cor. 10.33).
Paul concludes his definition of love with the famous words, “Love never ends.” Previously, I thought this meant that love never throws in the towel and quits, which is true. But reading it in context, it seems to say that the benefits of love never end. Even when you no longer have the gift, or after you are gone and your gift with you, the love you show to others will continue on. Right now we only “know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away…” but love, and the benefits of it, will continue (13.9-10).